“From dust you were formed, to dust you shall return.” Those are the Ash Wednesday words. Ashes were rubbed in a cross on my forehead. Maybe on yours too.
I gave up soda for Lent. The weeks leading up were busy. Ash Wednesday was here; I hadn’t given much thought to this part of it. How petty to give up drinking bubbled sugar that, according to medical studies, will speed my return to dust.
And then I broke even that. A friend asked me if I wanted a Dr. Pepper. I wasn’t staying aware. Cold, crisp Dr. Pepper has undue power over me. It was a hot afternoon. A few minutes later my daughter asked from the back of the van if I just “broke Lent.” She’s six. I’m an idiot. A moment to talk about idiocy and grace.
She’s kept her Lent. On her own she came up with the idea of giving up her stuffed animals, what she calls “lovies.” Which makes sharper the question: my ridiculousness, can that one day return to dust too? You’ve got to hope for silver linings in the personal apocalypse.
I’m quite sure this says nothing good about my theology or piety, but here goes: I was much more disappointed about disappointing my daughter than about disappointing God.
Yet my faith is as strong as it ever is when I hear those words while being marked with ash.
A faith that turns celebration palm branches into the mark of death is a realistic faith in this world. A faith that turns the branches of a Christmas tree into a coarse cross confesses a roughed up hope that might endure, and be worth following, in this life.
In the end:
My body, to dust. The people I love, to dust. Our memories and accomplishments, to dust. Hopefully some of it lives on in goodness rippling out, but still, to dust.
My doubt, it will turn to dust. And so too my faith. Both proved right or wrong in their ways–either because it’s all only dust, or because then we will see face to face.
My sin, to dust. My hypocrisy, to dust.
Can the atheist and Christian celebrate Lent together? The atheist finding beauty, perhaps, by focusing on the ephemeral. The Christian finding beauty, perhaps, also beyond…by focusing on the ephemeral.
So we hurl forward toward Lent’s end.
It finishes with Maundy Thursday, Jesus washing feet, telling us to do the same. The grittiness of love: that we must keep rising out of dust to clean each other’s dust off.
No, it doesn’t end there. It finishes with Good Friday. I asked my daughter if she knew when Lent ended, back when we started, before I broke it with that cold, crisp Dr. Pepper. She said, “On Black Friday.” A wholly different and more cynical celebration of our mortality, that Friday is. I let it slide. Yes, on Good Friday then Lent must surely end, when the sky goes dark and the curtain is shorn. How much more can we take? Dust has darkened the sky.
No, it ends not there. Holy Saturday, that mysterious descending to the dead. Dust left in the dust. Doubters left huddling in a room, their hope lingering in a tomb. A limbo most of us can understand.
No, not then either. It doesn’t end there. Let’s hold on one more day. Let’s hold on till Easter morning, when Lent really ends into this crazy hope that Love itself rises from the dust. This crazy hope that Love can’t ultimately be ground down. Dust to dust, but also Life to Life.
Kent Annan is author of the new book After Shock: Searching for Honest Faith When Your World is Shaken. He is co-director of Haiti Partners and also author of Following Jesus through the Eye of the Needle. (100% of the author proceeds from both books go to education in Haiti.)